Amy Bloom: White Houses (2018)

I’m not that familiar with most of the pre-Reagan American presidents and even less with their respective wives, but Eleanor Roosevelt was someone who had piqued my curiosity, years ago, as a teenager. I read a terrific book by Gloria Steinem, called a Book of Self Esteem and she made a comparison between Eleanor Roosevelt and Margaret Mead. Both women were highly intelligent and successful, but not exactly known for their conventional beauty. As Steinem showed, Mead couldn’t have cared less, while Roosevelt, when asked by an interviewer, whether she had any regrets looking back on her life said: “Just one. I wish I had been prettier.” This struck me as incredibly sad and touched me because it was so frank. I also wondered, what kind of life she thinks she’d have had if she had been prettier. After all, she was married to one of the most popular US presidents. When I came across Amy Bloom’s latest novel White Houses and saw it was about her relationship with Lorena Hickock, I remembered the Steinem book and picked it up. I wasn’t surprised to find out that Eleanor Roosevelt’s looks were also an important topic in this novel.

Of course, White Houses, is a novel, not a nonfiction book, so we have to assume Bloom took some liberties, nonetheless it was fascinating for many reasons. I had an idea of president Roosevelt, like many do, and while I still believe he was one of the better presidents, I don’t think he was that good a man. At least not, judging by this novel. Not only was he a philanderer but quite cruel to his mistresses. When they had served their purpose, he dropped them like a hot potato. But this is only a tiny part of what this book is about.

He was the greatest president of my life-time and he was a son of a bitch every day. His charm and cheer blinded you, made you deaf to your own thoughts, until all you could do was nod and smile, while the frost came down, killing you were you stood. He broke hearts and ambitions across his knee like bits of kindling and then he dusted off his hands and said, Who’s for cocktails? If Missy’s stroke hadn’t killed her, Franklin’s cold heart would have.

White Houses is told by Lorena Hickock, a journalist and writer who seems to have had a love affair with Eleanor Roosevelt. Quite a passionate affair, as it seems. They were drawn to each other physically, emotionally, and intellectually.

While she may not have been a great beauty, Eleanor was very attentive and caring, which endeared her to people.

We love the attentiveness of powerful people, because it’s such a pleasant, gratifying surprise, but Eleanor was not a grand light shining briefly on the lucky little people. She reached for the soul of everyone who spoke to her, every day. She bowed her head towards yours, as if there was nothing but the time and necessary space for two people to briefly love each other.

For many years, Hickock lived with the Roosevelts at the White House. Just like Eleanor accepted her husbands affairs, he seems to have accepted that his wife had hers.

We learn a lot about Lorena Hickock who came from a dirt poor family, was abused by her father and later, during the depression, abandoned. It’s remarkable that she was able, in spite of her hardships, to get a good education and become one of the first female journalists who covered important cases, like that of the Lindbergh baby.

Eleanor came from a totally different background but there’s still a lot of tragedy there. Even though she had six children, she was only really attached to one and he died shortly after his birth. The other kids were brought up by Franklin’s mother, the bossy clan matriarch with whom Eleanor didn’t get along too well. It seems to have been clear for everyone that motherhood was never Eleanor’s calling. And she hated having sex with her husband. It’s sad to think that she still had to go through so many pregnancies.

Since they were public figures, it’s easy to imagine how difficult the relationship between Lorena and Eleanor was. Maybe it was because of that or because of other reasons, but they slowly drifted apart. The book begins right after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death and then moves back and forth in time. The short period after her husband’s death, marks also the end of the love story between Eleanor and Lorena. Why? We don’t know.

White Houses is a elegantly written novel. It’s fascinating and has some wonderful scenes that I enjoyed a lot. The relationship between the women is very affectionate.

We drove to a cabin overlooking the ocean at dusk and unpacked before dark. We shared a brandy and the last of the pretzels and stood in our nightclothes on the little porch, the big quilt around us. The mottled, bright white moon pulled the tide like a silver rug, onto the dark pebbled beach. It should have been a starry sky, but it was deep indigo, like the sea below, with nothing in it but the one North Star.

What I found very well done was the way Bloom described the White House. It is, after all, not only a famous house, but a place where a family, their friends, and entourage live, in other words, it is someone’s home. And that aspect of home, is well captured.

While the novel had many interesting elements, I was a little disappointed. I was left with too many questions and felt I would have done better to pick up a biography. But maybe that’s unfair, as I didn’t regret reading it. Both women are so fascinating and the book manages to show what a complex person the president was.

They loved him. History should show him to be a great man, a great leader, a silver-tongued con man and a devil with women, but if it doesn’t show that they adored him, it’s not telling the truth.

And it does its title justice. It evokes both sides of the White House – the public place and the home of a family.

César Aira – El Tilo – The Lime Tree

Argentinian writer César Aira has been on my radar for a while. I don’t think I have come across any negative reviews of his work so far. On the contrary, most of his readers were more than enthusiastic. Aira is known to be one of the most prolific writers. To this day, he’s written over one hundred books. Obviously, his books are mostly on the short side, nonetheless, it’s an impressive number. It’s also a number that makes it difficult for first time readers to choose a book. Since I’d read a few rave reviews of The Lime Tree, I decided to start with that.

The Lime Tree tells a fictional childhood memoir, set right after the fall of Peronism. The narrator is an older man, looking back on his childhood, exploring the role of History on his personal history. The distinction between History with a capital H and history is a major theme of this novel. The way families, in this case, poor Argentinian families are influenced by the History of the country, its politics, is central. For someone who knows little about Latin American – or Argentinian history – it was very interesting. The book explained very well how someone like Perón could be so popular with the working classes who were hoping for social mobility.

Perón and the fall of Perón, were important for the narrator’s family and therefore also for the narrator himself. But there were other things that would play a role. His father, a very good-looking man, was ‘black’, probably of Indian descent, while his mother is described as dwarf-like and very ugly. His father, an ardent Peronist, suffered from his nerves, after the end of Peronism, and hardly spoke while his mother was a loud, chatty woman.

This duality might help to explain his marriage. My mother was white; she came from a respectable, middle-class family, and if she had acquiesced to an alliance with the ‘black’ populace, it was because her physical deformity made it impossible for her to marry at her own level. The alternative would have been to remain unmarried, and as far back as I can remember, she was always expressing her horror at the condition of ‘spinster’.

For the reader, many of the episodes in the novel are amusing, but when you look at them closely, you notice how much pain and tragedy these parents experienced.

Some readers have complained that Aria doesn’t write chronological tales and that it can be quite challenging to read him. I didn’t mind this at all. Reading The Lime Tree was like listening to the monologue of an older relative who is reminiscing, telling stories of his life, jumping from one topic to the next but always picking up the lost thread again. As with many elements of this book, there’s an echo of this reading experience in the text.

Back then, people had so much time, they would tolerate the craziest monologues. I can’t have been the only one who listened to them with pleasure.

It was fascinating to learn more about a place, Colonel Pringles, in Argentina, during a specific period, the 50s. I found Aria’s approach to telling a story interesting because it mirrored his topic – History and personal history and the way they influence each other. And there are many wonderful, colourful scenes and story elements that I liked a lot, like the description of the way they lived – in one room of an abandoned inn. I would actually love to see this made into a movie.

Will I read more of Aira? It’s possible, but I don’t think I would read him in English again. I just felt very far from the original text. That doesn’t mean the translation isn’t good. I’m sure it is. I just wanted to hear the original cadence. I noticed that there’s a new collection in Spanish due to come out in May – here. It contains ten of his short books. Maybe I’ll pick it up.

 

Karen Thompson Walker: The Dreamers (2019)

Karen Thompson Walker’s first novel, The Age of Miracles, was my favourite book of 2013. I adored that book so much. It’s mood, tone, and intriguing premise stayed with me. Needless to say that when I saw that she finally had a second novel out, I had to read it.

The premise of the The Dreamers is maybe not as intriguing as the apocalyptic premise of The Age of Miracles, but it’s still interesting. In a small college town in Southern California, a girl falls asleep and doesn’t wake up anymore. Soon there’s another one and then another one until there’s an epidemic. The city gets cordoned off. Nobody can enter, nobody can get out. More and more people fall asleep and don’t wake up. They all have one thing in common—they seem to be dreaming constantly. When the first girl dies, people get even more alarmed. The hospital is flooded and many of the staff fall asleep as well. Soon there are almost more sleepers than people awake and many of the sleepers die.

Unlike her first book, this one is told from multiple perspectives. The main characters are – two small girls whose father’s a survivalist, two college kids, a psychiatrist from out-of-town, and a husband and wife with a tiny baby. It was interesting to see the story told from many angles but unfortunately, it also meant it didn’t have the impact of The Age of Miracles. There was no specific tone or mood, just good-story telling. I definitely wanted to know why they fell asleep and what would become of them.

Once I finished it, I had to admit I felt underwhelmed. I thought at first that it was because my expectations were too high but then I realized that it reminded me too much of Camus’ La peste. It’s possible that this is just an unfortunate coincidence, but it’s equally possible she meant this as some sort of retelling. I didn’t read any other reviews or author interviews, so I have no idea. Unfortunately, for her, it’s hard to compete with Camus. That said, I’m sure many people will love this as it explores a topic we’re all, to some extent, afraid of – the outbreak of an epidemic. Her approach isn’t personal but social. She explores how fear affects people. She looks at the moral choices people make to either save themselves or help others.

There’s a quote from Catherine, the psychologist that I like a lot:

Worry, she reminds her patients, is a kind of creativity. Fear is an act of the imagination.

Seeing how people react to this unknown, contagious, and potentially life-threatening affliction illustrates the quote. People’s behaviour depends so much on what they imagine will happen.

The book also does ask some universal questions about illness and morality. There are so many who fall asleep and need help that, after a while, those still in good shape have to make choices who they will help. Someone they know? A younger child instead of an older person? Randomly? And what about pets – once food gets scarce inside of the city, should they still be fed?

Given the title, which isn’t The Sleepers but The Dreamers, it’s not surprising  that the nature of reality is another important theme. How do we really know we’re awake when sometimes dreams are so vivid we can’t tell we’re sleeping?

While I was a bit disappointed, expecting something with a similar tone and mood to her first novel, and because it reminded me of Camus, I still found this a compelling book. Her writing flows so well and the pace and structure are very balanced. And there are so many topical themes that make it ideal for a discussion group.

Joseph Roth – Radetzky March Readalong

You may remember talk of a spring Radetzky March readalong (or re-readalong for those who are already acquainted) during 2018 German Literature Month.  All who were interested in participating were asked to comment on their favoured month, and it turned out that April was favoured by most.

Now April is beginning to look rather full. Stu is hosting Penguin Classics week at the beginning of the month (8th-15th) and Karen and Simon are hosting the 1965 club at the end of the month (22nd-28th).  So where can Lizzy and I slot this readalong?

As the novel is divided into 3 parts of nearly equal length, we’ve decided on the first 3 weeks of the month. (There is a Penguin Classics edition, so, if you’re reading that, you can kill two birds with one stone!) And to tie in with #translationthurs, we’ll discuss Part One on Thursday  April 4, Part Two on Thursday April 11 and Part 3 on Thursday April 18.

We both loved the detailed discussion of the Effi Briest readalong, way back when during the first German Literature Month. So we’re intending to send out discussion questions for each part of the discussion.  You can answer these or post your own thoughts, entirely as you please.  If you’re intending to participate, please leave a comment and your email below.

More details nearer the time, but we wanted you to pencil in the dates now – before the month of April just gets too full for most of us!

Neil Gaiman Teaches the Art of Storytelling – Margaret Atwood Teaches Creative Writing

This is something for the writers among my readers – but also for the fans of Neil Gaiman and Margaret Atwood.

I’ve taken a few of the Masterclass (writing) classes because I’ve got the all-access pass since last year and thoroughly enjoyed them.

Some of the newer instructors are Margaret Atwood and Neil Gaiman. While I mostly enjoy Margaret Atwood’s class, I absolutely love Nail Gaiman’s storytelling course. The material is inspiring and he’s just such a wonderful person.

Since these are new classes, I thought it might be worth mentioning them.

You can find Neil’s class here:

https://www.masterclass.com/classes/neil-gaiman-teaches-the-art-of-storytelling?gclid=CjwKCAiA4t_iBRApEiwAn-vt-xFxTBu8AFsiAJx0S6PvHvW1OFWadM2_d-9FbiXnaj_Uy5eOBF5CChoC63cQAvD_BwE&utm_campaign=NG&utm_content=Brand-%2Bmasterclass+%2Bgaiman-US_BM&utm_medium=AdWords&utm_source=Paid&utm_term=Aq-Prospecting

Here is Margaret Atwood’s class:

https://www.masterclass.com/classes/margaret-atwood-teaches-creative-writing?utm_source=Paid&utm_medium=AdWords&utm_campaign=MA&utm_content=Nonbrand-margaret%20atwood%20masterclass-G2_EM&utm_term=Aq-Prospecting&gclid=CjwKCAiA4t_iBRApEiwAn-vt-30kBUszJe-4UgYeirz0ai-X29cD4UXvUu3I800P67AaLdhFeWfiZRoCOvAQAvD_BwE

 

 

If you have any questions about Masterclass or certain classes, just ask me. Since I’ve taken a few – not only on writing -, I can certainly give you my opinion and some advice.

Angelika Overath – All the Colors of Snow – Sent Diary – Alle Farben des Schnees

Have you ever dreamt of moving to the place where you spend your holidays? That’s exactly what German journalist and writer Angelika Overath did in 2007. She, her husband, and their youngest child moved to Sent, a small village in the Engadine region of Switzerland. Before that, they lived in Tübingen, Germany, where her husband was a professor at the university. Her two older children stayed in Tübingen.

Shortly after they moved, Overath was asked whether she wanted to write something for a local newspaper about moving to her holiday home. That article was the starting point to this book— a diary of a little more than a year in her new home Sent.

I read a few of the diary entries in an anthology and liked them so much that I wanted to read her whole book. As a child, we used to spend many holidays in the Engadine region. My mother had a Swiss friend whose family owned a holiday home there. The scenery is spectacular and I was always fascinated to see how differently the seasons changed in the mountains. I never spent a Christmas there, only New Year, but it must be lovely as the parts I read in the anthology, and now reread, take place during Christmas and Overath describes so many wonderful things and interesting customs.

The descriptions of the changing seasons are some of the best parts in Overath’s “diary”. That and her joy to be somewhere she loves as much as she loves the Engadine. She describes what it takes to change status, to move away from being a tourist and become a local. In her case, it’s not that easy because, as you may know, the Engadine region is the Swiss region, where the fourth Swiss language – Romansh (Rätoromanisch) is spoken. People speak some German and Swiss but they distinctly prefer to speak their own language and in order to get fully accepted it’s better to learn to speak the local language.

While her son, who is only seven when they move, picks up Romansh easily at school, and her husband has a greater facility to learn Romansh, it’s not that easy for Angelika Overath to learn the language. But since she’s so enthusiastic, she uses a special way for herself, which I found quite ingenious and well-worth copying. In order to familiarize herself with the language, especially the nuances of the vocabulary – many words sound similar but have  a completely different meaning – she began to write poetry in Romansh. The result is quirky and playful. It’s a brilliant way to learn a new language.

I enjoyed this book a lot because of the beautiful descriptions of the landscape, and the many interesting people that populate these pages. The Overaths have a rich social life and meet many fascinating people. Sent seems to be a place that attracts a lot of foreigners, artist, writers. It’s also a place people seem to return to after having stayed abroad for a while.

My only small reservation concerns the term “diary”. In my opinion, this is rather a notebook than a diary. Angelika Overath herself, her interior life is almost completely absent from these pages. One can sense it was meant for an audience and not as personal as diaries normally are. But that’s a tiny reservation. It’s such a rich and diverse book that has a lot to say about moving to another country, learning a new language, new ways of living. It also describes beautifully the charm of living in a small community. And her love for the mountains, the short but intense summers, and the long, cold, snowy winters, can be felt on every page.

Sadly, so far, none of the books by Angelika Overath have been translated into English. This book would be interesting for American readers as there are several entries set in the US, during the summer, when both she and her husband teach at a college in Vermont. Since I liked the way she wrote, I might try one of her novels next.

Did you ever want to move to a place where you spent your holidays? I know I did. I often dream of moving to the South of France. It wouldn’t be a challenge language-wise, so, maybe, that doesn’t count.

Amy Liptrot: The Outrun (2016) – Wellcome Book Prize 10th Anniversary Tour

I was so pleased when I was invited to participate in the Wellcome Book Prize 10th Anniversary Tour and review one of the titles. There are so many literary prizes, but the Wellcome Prize is one of the most interesting to me because it is given to books that illuminate the many ways that health, medicine and illness touch our lives. 2019 marks the 10th anniversary of this prestigious award. Over the last decade, the prize has gone to a variety of titles from novels (Mend the Living, Maylis de Kerangal) to memoirs (The Iceberg, Marion Coutts) to popular science (It’s All in Your Head, Suzanne O’Sullivan).

I was offered to choose from the 2016 short list, including its winning title It’s All in Your Head by Suzanne O’Sullivan.

2016 Shortlist:Playthings by Alex Pheby; The Last Act of Love by Cathy Rentzenbrink; Neurotribes by Steve Silberman; Signs for Lost Children by Sarah Moss; The Outrun by Amy Liptrot.

There were many books on the list I felt tempted to read but I decided to choose Amy Liptrot’s memoir The Outrun because I was interested to see how the wild, as the blurb says, restored her life and renewed her hope.

At the age of thirty, after ten years of hard binge drinking, Amy returns to Orkney. Ten years earlier, she’s left the Scottish island in search of a more glamorous life in London. As soon as she arrived in London, she started to party, hang out with people in parks, take drugs and binge drink. It often seemed as if she was homesick.

But sometimes a smell in the air would remind me sharply that I was living in England. This leafy country with its red-brick skyline was not my home. I yearned for the open skies and grey stone of Orkney. I missed the curlews and oyster-catchers, even the black-backed gulls. Sometimes I’d be walking down Bethnal Green Road, surprised by the tears rolling silently down my face. (p. 37/38)

Although I’d left, and had wanted to leave, Orkney and the cliffs held me, and when I was away I always had, somewhere inside, a quietly vibrating sense of loss and disturbance. (p.50)

At the beginning of the memoir, she’s out of rehab and back where she came from, on Orkney. Bit by bit, we learn about her chaotic life in London, the excessive drinking that often ends with her blacking-out. When she is getting worse and worse, her boyfriend leaves her, she looses her job, and her apartment. Unfortunately, this isn’t enough and her drinking intensifies even more. Often she wakes up in places and with people she doesn’t know. Often, she starts drinking again right after waking up to fight a terrible hangover.

I heard it said that in London you’re always looking for either a job, a house or a lover. I did not realise how easily and how fast I could lose all three. (p. 43)

Reading about her excesses made me wonder how it was even possible that she managed to give up drinking. For years there was nothing else in her life but one bottle after the other. People started to avoid her because she was loud and rowdy, destroyed things, lost things, had accidents. She was such a mess.

My behaviour brought tension into the household: unpredictable noise levels; Tuesday night parties with strangers, men I brought home; leaving my handbag outside the front door and possessions trailing up the stairs. These episodes were followed by the depressive shadow of my hung-over days in bed.  (p.56)

And then, one night, something terrible happens and this might very well have been the deciding factor. While she did stop drinking occasionally and tried to stay away from alcohol before, it never lasted long. But after that night, which was a wake-up call for her, she enters a day rehab. One week of detox, assisted by Librium, was followed by twelve weeks of group therapy. One of the hardest things, in my opinion, is that she wasn’t allowed to stay at the rehab center but had to go home and face temptation every night. She lived over a pub in Hackney Wick. I don’t know Amy, but reading about this and knowing she made it, made me proud of her. It sounded like such a hard thing to do.

Once the program at the rehab center is finished, she returns to Orkney where she tracks birds, swims in ice-cold water, watches the night sky.

The descriptions of this harsh but beautiful landscape are amazing. Especially so, because we see them through Amy’s eyes whose every sense seems to reawaken now that she’s off the booze.

I loved this memoir so much. I could quote endlessly from it and I’m in awe because the fight is so intense. As Amy writes, even 20 months after she quit drinking, she still fantasizes about drinking all the time.

Through repeated use of the drug, our neural pathways are scored so deeply they will never be repaired.I will always be vulnerable to relapse and other kinds of addiction.

I’m crying. I’m sober, twenty months and eight days now, and I like the changes happening in my life but I’m still often frustrated about not being ‘able’ to drink. I’m sober but I would like drink.It’s a painful paradox to live in. (p.180).

It’s only towards the end of the book, and a long stay on Orkney, and a winter on her own on a much smaller island, Papa Westray, that the alcohol slowly lets go of her. There’s so much hope at the end and such a keen appreciation of life and nature. I also loved what she wrote about finding a new identity. For ten long years, her identity was rooted in her drinking. What would be left after that was gone?

I can’t recommend this highly enough. It’s an amazing insight into someone’s addiction and recovery and a fabulous account of life on Orkney. I could see the many migratory birds, feel the icy cold of the water, the force of the gales, and the beauty of the constellations in the night sky.

In defiance of this dissatisfaction, I’m conducting my own form of therapy through long walks, cold swims and methodically reading old journals. I’m learning to identify and savour freedom: freedom of place, freedom of damaging compulsion. I’m filling the void with new knowledge and moments of beauty. (p.180)

Don’t miss visiting the other blogs. You’ll discover many amazing books.

I’d like to dedicate this review to my beloved cousin, Olivier, who suffered from the same addiction as Amy but sadly didn’t make it.